It's been said that the secret to writing a good story is not having a really interesting hero, but rather an interesting villain. The hero himself is defined by the villain in many ways, just as a sports team becomes famous only once they've defeated the last year's champions, or a runner breaks the world record for speed, a hero needs someone to test himself against, a great obstacle for him to overcome or destroy. If the villain is interesting, then the hero will be interesting too.
It is natural, then, for a roleplayer to want to test his own heroes or those of his friends against some obstacles as well. Many of us sit down with the intention of creating a really interesting challenge for our guildmates to overcome – but in our creative endeavor we must remember that danger lurks behind every corner, and creating a villain in itself is a task with significant obstacles to overcome. In fact, one might say that the greatest enemy of such a roleplayer is none other than his own self, the ghost of cliché lurking just outside his field of creative vision.
Step 4: Muahahahaha!
So you thought you were safe did you? You may have had some victories so far, but be assured your path to evil is not finished yet.
In steps 1 through 3, we learned that the secret to true roleplaying villainy is tapping into issues that are meaningful and entertaining for your friends. It has nothing to do with actually being bad. It involves giving your friends' characters some obstacles to overcome, which your friends themselves think are really interesting. You may have to consult with your guild, make some intuitive leaps, and experiment a bit, but in the end, like any mad scientist worth his lab coat, you'll be laughing maniacally when you finally get it right.
On your way to becoming entertainingly evil, it would be wise to keep in mind more ghostly pitfalls you may not be aware of, which may catch you and ruin your fun before you even begin. These are vague and hard to pin down at times, and if you have the right group of people it may not even matter at all. Nonetheless, certain clichés can cause trouble if you're not aware of them, and the only way to be sure to defeat them is to exorcise them from your unconscious, into the light of critical examination.
Step 5: Possession of clichéd story material
One of the "mistakes" many of us make in our journey toward proper villainhood is to let our main characters get possessed by a demon or spirit of some sort. I put "mistakes" in "quotation marks" because there's nothing technically wrong with the idea: It's certainly possible to roleplay a possession well, practical within the restraints of the game, and plausible within the Warcraft setting. If this is your first time trying out roleplaying bad guys with a group of friends, you might really have a great time with it.
But beware – it's just about the first thing people think of when the first whisper of villainy comes into their minds. It seems so original and interesting at first that they may not realize that great minds think alike, and all the other roleplayers on their server have thought of it too. Any experienced roleplayer has probably seen the "possession" idea roleplayed in many ways and has even tried it himself more than once in one form or another. Seeing it again may not evoke instant enthusiasm for the idea, but it's still possible that you or one of your friends might find an approach to possession that feels fresh and fun again. If you talk it over and your guild says their fine with that, then fine. But if you get a sense that they've "been there, done that" then be prepared to try and find something different.
Step 6: Design for the delete button
So if you've decided you want to try a different way to be really nasty and evil, then consider this: create a villain who is doomed from the very beginning to utter failure and ultimate deletion. Design him, name him, dress him up in fancy low-level clothes, but don't plan on leveling him up to Northrend, nor even necessarily the Barrens, because he really isn't going to live that long.
He's going to be a short-term utility in your quest to entertain your friends for a limited period of time. He will appear, present a challenge of some sort, continue to build some tension for a while, arrive at a climactic conflict, and then fail, die, or get banished to a parallel universe. Whatever happens, your friends will win and he will lose, because it's not fun for a villain to succeed, nor is it fun for the same loser to just keep coming back again and again to do the same old things he's always done. You might get away with bringing a villain back for a second or maybe even third run around if you have new ideas and can keep him interesting, but sooner or later he's going to become a groaner that people wish would just stay dead for good.
"But what about the Joker?" you ask, "Lex Luthor, or even Dr. Claw! – all these are famous villains that keep coming back again and again. Why can't I do the same thing?" Repetitive villains only succeed in media where repetition isn't a problem: children's Saturday morning cartoons often thrive on repetition of themes and ideas, as do Sunday morning comic strips and serial comic books – all these have an audience that isn't looking for brilliant creativity so much as they are looking for more of the same old thing that they're used to already. They keep coming back for the same reason that fans of classic TV shows like watching reruns – it's familiar, it's good, and it's comforting.
But in my experience, roleplayers don't want the same thing from their experience in WoW. They want to see development and evolution of old themes into something young and exciting, with old elements mixing together into something new. When you see the Joker returning to the big screen in a new Batman movie, it's precisely because they're trying to do something new with the character that we haven't seen before. But as roleplayers, it's much harder to just reset the Warcraft universe and start afresh the way you can with old comic book characters. Therefore it's much better if our villains always bring something new to the table too. Besides, roleplayers also want to feel successful, not annoyed, and that villain who just won't go away doesn't help with that.
Whatever you come up with, make sure it's short, an experiment you can learn from, and needn't get drawn out forever. Temporary characters are a perfect opportunity to try out different ideas, to see what works and what doesn't.
Step 7: Disposable Villains, Inc... (to be continued)
Next week, we'll be looking at how to put ideas like this into motion, with practical examples about how to make disposable villains work, and how to plan out a story with them, as well as some of the nice details you can put in there to make even a lowbie character feel like the perfect channel for your evil genius.